Culture

The Rest is Slander

Untranslated stories by Austrian literary master Thomas Bernhard capture the chilling clarity of a postwar era where cultural references are devoured by commodification. In "Ungenach," an heir renounces his vast inheritance to peculiar characters while unearthing his brother's murder and futile philanthropy. "The Weatherproof Cape" follows a lawyer clinging to familial ties through an unremarkable garment and a deceased client. "Midland in Stilfs" mocks a cosmopolitan's laughable quest for authenticity on a dying Alpine farmstead. "At the Ortler" portrays two brothers, one a scientist and the other an acrobat, reflecting on their unconventional paths while scaling a mountain to reclaim abandoned family property. "At the Timberline" unravels a scandalous crime, casting a shadow on a policeman's personal life after a young couple's arrival in a mountain village.
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The Rest is Slander

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July 16, 2023 01:57 EDT
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The Weatherproof Cape 

From the Innsbruck lawyer Enderer, our guardian, we received the following (verbatim) account . . . for twenty years, mainly in the Saggengasse and mainly at about noon, I have been crossing paths with this person without knowing who this person is; complementarily, for twenty years, mainly in the Saggengasse and mainly at about noon, this person has been crossing paths with me, without knowing who I am . . . moreover, this person hails from the Saggengasse!, albeit from the upper Saggengasse, whereas I hail from the lower Saggengasse; both of us grew up in the Saggengasse and in fact, I think, I have always seen this person without knowing that he hails from the Saggengasse and without knowing who he is; complementarily this person has known nothing about me . . . now it occurs to me that there is something about this person that I should have noticed years ago, that I should have noticed his weatherproof cape . . . reproachfully I say to myself, we cross paths with a person for years, decades, without knowing who this person is and if we ought to notice anything about the person, we notice nothing about the person, and we could cross paths with such a person over the course of an entire life without noticing anything about the person . . . suddenly we notice something about this person with whom we have been crossing paths for two decades, we notice something, be it his weatherproof cape, be it something else entirely; suddenly I noticed this person’s weatherproof cape and in connection with this I suddenly realized that this person lived in the Saggengasse and was partial to taking walks along the Sill . . . a week ago this person accosted me in the Herrengasse and the man went up with me into my office; as we were climbing the stairs I realized, you have been seeing this person for two full decades, always the same person, always the same ageing individual in the Saggengasse, at about noon in this weatherproof cape, in this quite ordinary but quite definitely worn-out weatherproof cape; still, as we were climbing the stairs it was not yet apparent to me why the person’s weatherproof cape in particular was arousing my attention; suddenly, at close quarters, the man’s weatherproof cape was arousing my undivided attention . . . but it really is quite an ordinary weatherproof cape, I thought; there are tens of thousands of such weatherproof capes in these mountains; tens of thousands of weatherproof capes worn by the Tyrolians . . . no matter who these people are, no matter what they do, when they come here they all sport these weatherproof capes; some of them sport the grey ones, and the rest of them the green ones, because they all wear these weatherproof capes, and the numerous loden factories in the valleys just keep thriving; these weatherproof capes are exported to every corner of the world, but there was something quite distinctive about the weatherproof cape of my new client: its buttonholes were trimmed in goat leather! I have seen these goat leather-trimmed buttonholes only once before in my life, namely, on the weatherproof cape of my uncle, who drowned eight years ago in the lower Sill . . . to think that this person is wearing exactly the same weatherproof cape as my drowned uncle’s, I think as I am walking up to my office with the man . . . suddenly I recall that when they pulled my Uncle Worringer out of the Sill, opinion had been divided over whether his drowning had been an act of desperation or an accident, but I am firmly of the belief that it was with so-called suicidal intent that Worringer threw himself into the Sill; for me there can be no doubt about it; Worringer killed himself; everything in his life and ultimately everything in his business life points to suicide . . . by the time they were looking for the drowned man upstream of the glass factory, he had already been washed up onto the riverbank downstream of Pradl; the newspapers devoted entire pages to the incident; our entire family was hauled into public view by the press; the phrases a ruined business, ruined timber, the death of a sawmill, and finally financial and social ruin haunted the journalists’ sensation-mongering minds . . . the funeral in Wilten was one of the biggest there has ever been; I remember thousands of people in attendance, writes Enderer . . . it’s remarkable, I say to the man with whom I was climbing the staircase leading to my office, that I can’t get your weatherproof cape out of my mind; several times I’ve failed to get your weatherproof cape out of my mind . . . your weatherproof cape, believe it or not . . . I could not help thinking but did not say, there is the most intimate connection between your weatherproof cape and my uncle; who knows whether the man knows what I am talking about, I thought and I invite the man to step into the office; step inside! I say, because the man is hesitating; next I am in the office and taking off my coat and the man is coming in . . . it very much looks as though the man was waiting for me in the front doorway of the building; today I am running twenty minutes late, I think, and then: what does this man want? I was alternately irritated by his taciturnity and his weatherproof cape; as soon as we were both inside the office, I saw even more clearly, more distinctly, after I had turned the light on, that the buttonholes of the man’s weatherproof cape were trimmed with goat leather, with black goat leather, and I discerned that my new client’s weatherproof cape had been tailored exactly like the weatherproof cape of my Uncle Worringer, tailored in the simplest style. I tell the man he must take a seat, that first thing of all I must see to the heating of the office, that I am alone, that my secretary is ill, influenza, I say, the flu; I must light a fire, but last night I got everything ready in advance, I say, so that getting the office heated won’t present the slightest difficulties now; I tell the man he must take a seat; he takes a seat; this dreary fog-saturated atmosphere, I say, everything is obscured in gloom, this time of the year exacts the utmost discipline, one must master oneself and get through it; the sentence was rapidly uttered, for all its weightiness; at the same time I thought, what a preposterous sentence, these superfluous, preposterous matutinal sentences, I thought; everything is subjected to a colossal test of its endurance, I say, the body, the intellect, the mind, the intellect, the body. Quite naturally when people come in here, they keep their coats on, and my new client is likewise keeping on his weatherproof cape; now in the office he seemed to feel even colder than in the doorway; it won’t be long before it warms up, I say; once the heat is on, I say, the warmth spreads quickly; I made a point of emphasizing to him the excellent quality of American cast-iron stoves; I made a remark about the insalubriousness of central heating; I kept saying, it’s much too dark for office work; one can part the curtains, but it doesn’t do any good, turn on more lamps, but it doesn’t do any good; there is, I thought, a certain uncanniness about this situation, about being in my gloomy office in the morning with a strange person, a person who is completely wrapped up in his weatherproof cape, but when one considers, I say, that the shortest day of the year is only four weeks from now; I said this to no effect; I spoke about every possible thing while I was standing at the stove, but I was exclusively preoccupied with my new client’s weatherproof cape.

[Published by Seagull, translated by Douglas Robertson]

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